Ray Vecchio lifted a mud smeared hand to wipe his sweating brow and was disgusted at how it came away filthier than before. "This is *disgusting,*" he commented loudly. He lifted his brand new Timberland from a deep sucking mudhole. "Fraser, when you said early summer would be better weather for the annual trip to the Territories, I thought it would be dry and balmy."
"Ray, that describes weather in Hawaii, not Canada."
"Well then, when do you get nice weather up here?"
"This *is* nice weather," came the retort as Fraser moved further off into the woods beside the panoramic valley where his father's cabin once stood.
"Right," Ray said snidely. "For a water buffalo," he added under his breath. He hefted the muddy axe one more time and swung futiley at the tree in front of him. A small sliver of wood and some mud fell to the forest floor. He grunted in disgust. Diefenbaker, sitting fearlessly only a few yards from the budding Bunyan, yawned mightily and let loose with a snuffle and a whine while rolling onto his back.
"Keep it up, laughing boy," Ray warned the wolf. "I've got the trajectory all lined up. It's coming down right where your sitting." Dief sneezed his disbelief. Ray pushed at the trunk of the tree but nothing but pine needles and branches fell around him. Anger blossomed at the fact that northern trees resisted all of his attempts at cutting them down. It was like a curse or something. He could hear the wolf's laughter and decided not to even look his way. Spurred on by frustration Ray let loose with a mighty swing with his axe and a hoarse cry. A crack rent the air and the tree shuddered once as its shadow began to move along the earth straight towards Diefenbaker.
"Look out!" Ray shouted. He had only been kidding with the wolf. To tell the truth, he had no idea where the tree was going to land. Dief sprang to his feet and bolted out of the way by a hair's breath.
"I'm sorry, Dief," Ray shouted from the other side of the tree, grateful for its presence because he could tell the wolf was angry from the way Dief was barking and growling. "I said I'm sorry," Ray continued. "You don't really think I had any control over this piece of kindling, did you?"
Diefenbaker gave a final growl and disappeared into the brush.
"Okay, I've had enough. Quitting time." He pulled his feet from the mud and weaved his way towards where Fraser was working. A perfectly arranged pile of trunks, all neatly trimmed, were beside him. Ray sighed and looked back at his one lone tree trunk.
"I don't understand why they don't have electricity up here yet. The US is at least twice the size and we got it everywhere. What good's the power saw I bought you if you don't have electricity?" he commented more to himself than to anyone else. He finally went to look for Fraser. "What's to eat, Benny?" he called out. "I'm starving."
Suddenly a tree came sailing down towards him amidst the shout of timber. Ray dived out of the way flinging himself face down into the mud as the tree crashed twenty feet away.
"Ray, I'm terribly sorry. I didn't see you standing there." Fraser leaned down and helped Ray stand. Diefenbaker was nearby watching Ray's antics and enjoying every moment.
Ray pointed at Dief. "That was his idea, wasn't it?"
Fraser looked at the innocent-looking wolf who was wagging his tail. "What? No Ray, it was just an accident."
"I'm not cut out for this kind of life, Fraser," Ray decided while wiping off as much of the mud as possible. He hardly made a dent. "I thought I'd be good at this stuff, you know, being woodsy. Especially since I saved our bacons when the plane went down. But I was wrong. I just want to go back to Chicago where it's safe."
"Now Ray, it's only your first day out. You're just having an anxiety attack. Though I have to admit I'm surprised at your sudden reluctance. After all this annual outing *was* your idea."
"I am *not* having an anxiety attack. And besides, I was delirious with exhaustion then. You can't hold me to anything I said."
"You'll feel better after a meal," Fraser assured his friend.
Ray looked at him dubiously. "It's not gonna be beaver jerky or some other dried animal, is it?"
"That was only for the hike up. I wanted to get here before dark."
"It's going to be something weird though, isn't it?" Ray queried worriedly.
Fraser raised a contemplative eyebrow. "Define weird," he requested.
"Moose, caribou, anything that normal people can't buy in Chicago."
"Well actually Ray, there is a small gourmet grocery store down on Adams Street that sells canned moose."
"Leave it to you to track a moose in downtown Chicago." Ray flung up his hands in disbelief.
A third voice commented from behind Fraser. "There are no moose in Chicago. What kind of a moron is he?"
Fraser turned to find his deceased father, dressed in his brilliant red RCMP uniform. His chance at an enjoyable outing just vanished. "Not you," Fraser sighed.
"Of course, not me," an oblivious Ray cried out. "You wouldn't catch me eating moose in a can. Give me some pasta fazool anytime."
"He wouldn't know what to do with a moose even if he managed to bring one down," his father critiqued, eying Ray with disappointment.
Fraser still concentrating on his father stuck up for Ray. "A man from the city shouldn't be expected to know how to field dress wild game."
"That's right," Ray said. "There's no reason for any sane Italian to know what to do with a moose."
Robert Fraser moved over behind Ray. "He wouldn't survive ten minutes out here in the Territory."
"It doesn't take long to learn some simple survival skills," Fraser said.
"I don't need to know what to do with a moose," Ray told Fraser. "Just teach me how to make a fire with two sticks and I'll be happy."
Fraser feeling a headache coming on, shook his head and went to where the early shape of a cabin stood in the clearing to prepare a meal that wouldn't disappoint Ray and to escape the ranting of his ethereal father.
* * *
A wood stove was still faintly glowing around the small band of men as evening enveloped the Territory. The three men reclined on the floor of the cabin well sated after a meal of smoked salmon and fresh vegetables which Fraser had traded for with a family of Inuit on the way up to the cabin. They had eaten late but that was because it took some time for Ray to get the hang of starting a fire. But when he did, he took immense pride in the flickering flames.
There was no roof yet on the structure and the brilliance of the stars lit the skies above them. Off to the side was a brand new toilet and sink that they had yet to install. Fraser had no idea how he was going to do it, but they were a gift from Ray while he was recuperating in the hospital. He was waiting for his father to make a comment on them.
"Now *that* was a *fine* meal. Do you know what salmon goes for in a good Chicago restaurant?" Ray commented drowsily from across the room. He was already zipped up tight in his sleeping bag and on the verge of an exhausted sleep.
"I imagine it would be very expensive Ray."
"That's right. You surprised me Benny, you really did. Who would have thought there was actually real food out here in the middle of nowhere?"
"It did smell good, son," Fraser's father added, leaning back against a beam of the cabin wall. He patted a swelled stomach for good measure.
Fraser glanced at him with a dubious eye. "How would you know?"
Ray took offense. "Just because I eat a lot of fast food, doesn't mean I don't know class when I taste it."
Fraser looked back in confusion at Ray who turned over with difficulty and drifted off to sleep. He returned his attention to his father and spoke quietly. "I mean you're dead. How can you be full? You didn't eat anything."
Fraser Sr. shrugged. "Sometimes just smelling it fills me up like a bloated seal. Must be the vapors." He looked over at his son and got down to the real business why he had showed up. "So tell me why you wanted to rebuild the cabin. I thought you didn't like it."
Fraser turned away, a sad expression creasing his features.. "I never said I didn't like the cabin. It just reminded me of things I'd rather not remember, that's all." Fraser felt the familiar sting of pain. It wasn't as bad as it used to be but it drew a sharp intake of breath from him none-the-less.
"It wasn't me, was it?"
"No, dad, not you." Fraser answered quietly.
"Oh. You mean her."
"Well, boy, you need to get over that woman. It's been with you for far too long. Time to let it go. A good Mountie can't carry that kind of baggage around with him, especially not a Fraser."
"It's not that easy to forget."
"Poppycock! It's as easy as a beaver sawing through wood."
"It takes a beaver some time to cut down a good size tree."
That's not the point, son. You just need to get back in the saddle, so to speak. You've been in that city for far too long. You need to get back to basics."
Fraser sighed at his father's list of cliches. "That's sort of why we're here. Ray thought it would be good for me to come home for awhile. He claims I get moody when I'm too long in Chicago. I'm also trying to get him to feel more comfortable up here. He really has a passion for the great outdoors it's just that no one ever took the time to show him what to do."
"So Nanook of the North actually had a good idea. Well, teach him some survival skills as quick as you can. You'd probably take it personally if something happened to him. And you certainly don't need anymore angst. Lord knows where you got it all from. It must have come from your mother's side because I certainly don't have any."
Fraser shook his head and settled himself on the floor. "Good night, dad."
"Good night, son."
* * *
The next morning was a bright sunny day and eventually the temperature soared to above fifty degrees. Fraser and Ray were lifting their fourth cross tie beam with rope and pulleys. Ray tied off his rope and Fraser did the same before climbing nimbly up the side of the structure to swing the new beam into place. Ray eased off the pressure on his rope as Fraser guided it into position.
Ray glanced around to see if Diefenbaker was lurking behind him. Ray believed the wolf still bore ill-will towards the detective. However, the wolf was gone when they awoke and had not yet returned.
Suddenly, a figure came running down out of the woods and into the open field. Upon seeing the cabin he veered in their direction. Fraser hammered the last nail into the beam and slid down to greet the stranger.
The man was red-faced and out of breath. His clothes were disheveled and torn. He nearly fell to the ground when Ray grabbed him.
"My wife...a bear...attacked!" he gasped out. "She fell...there was a cliff."
"Slow down, catch your breath," Ray instructed easing the man down to the ground.
Fraser offered a canteen of water. "Where was this?" he asked.
"Don't know. The bear came after me...I just ran. We have to go back."
Ray stood up. "Oh great," he murmured. "A man-eating bear, just what I need."
Fraser either didn't hear him or ignored him, knowing that Ray didn't really mean what he said. "We'll need Diefenbaker. Cover your ears," Fraser warned.
A shrill whistle erupted from Fraser's lips, piercing Ray's eardrums even through his cupped hands. With a grimace and squinting eyes, Ray commented, "Far be it from me to state the obvious but Dief's deaf."
Fraser looked complacently at him. "Yes, Ray I know."
"Well then what makes you think he's gonna hear that."
"Well, you're right, he won't hear it," Fraser agreed as Ray put on a I'm finally right kind of look. Then Fraser nodded his head to the left, "but they will."
Ray turned to see a pack of seven wolves loping towards the cabin. Diefenbaker was among them. Ray jumped behind Fraser. "Good Lord, Dief's brought his buddies to finish the job."
Fraser explained. "He tends to run with this pack when we're here. They know the whistle and when they react, Diefenbaker knows the reason."
The pack came to an abrupt stop a hundred feet distant from the cabin while Diefenbaker continued on finally coming to rest at Fraser's feet and watching him quizzically.
"There's been a bear attack, Diefenbaker. A woman's missing." Fraser then turned to the hiker who was now more petrified than ever. Never in his life had he seen anything like what was transpiring before him. "Sir, do you have anything of your wife's with you?" The man shook his head. "Than perhaps something of yours. That hat will do."
The man removed his hat and handed it to Fraser who lowered it to Diefenbaker. "Be careful," Fraser said to his short compatriot. Dief barked once and sprinted away. The rest of the pack chased after him.
The hiker sidled up to Ray who looked as disturbed by the occurrences as he was. "Are they trained?" indicating the fast moving shapes disappearing over the rise.
Ray glanced at him and then started laughing. "Trained? All I know is that his wolf is deaf and the lip reading ability is self-taught." The man's expression went from bad to worse. Ray took pity on him, placing a hand on his shoulder. "He'll *find* your wife," he assured the man, indicating Fraser. "He's a Mountie. He once tracked a Lincoln Town Car across Chinatown back in Chicago. Lucky you, found the one man who has a snowball's chance in hell." Ray was puzzled when the man didn't find that reassuring.
Fraser had disappeared into the cabin's skeleton and brought out a compass and a boot knife which he slid home and then flung a small knapsack onto his shoulders.
Ray's and the hiker's eyes widened simultaneously. "Is that all you're gonna take?" Ray shouted.
Fraser glanced up. "I believe I have all that is necessary for the task. What else would you suggest I take?"
"How about a bazooka?"
Fraser frowned. "I sincerely doubt that will come in handy."
"Against a wild, mad grizzly bear? You're wrong. A bazooka will definitely come in handy."
"We're not certain the bear is mad, Ray. There are a number of reasons for a Kodiak to attack. There have been reports of poachers in the area. Perhaps the bear is wounded." Fraser looked up at the hiker quizzically for confirmation.
The man merely shrugged. "I didn't have time to examine the bear that closely. I was running for my life."
Ray emerged from the cabin with an enormous rifle and a huge backpack. He checked to make sure the weapon was loaded and stood next to Fraser. "Okay, now we're ready." * * *
Fraser moved quickly up to the rise and paused as he waited for Ray. His friend was laboring under the heavy pack which he thought so important to bring. Fraser's eyes lifted to take in the man back at the cabin site. The figure stood there watching them a moment more before walking into the remnants of the structure.
Ray staggered at Fraser's feet. "Are we there yet?" he prayed breathlessly.
"What exactly do you have in there?" Fraser asked, indicating the backpack.
"Well, I wish it was a bazooka, but in place of that how about some TNT?"
Fraser's eyes widened. "Are you asking me or telling me that you're carrying high explosives?"
Ray's grin was cheshire-like as he looked up at his friend. "As much as I'm scared out of my wits at tracking a man-eating bear, I'm more disturbed at leaving weapons with a perfect stranger. So I took all the guns and brought them with me. We'll hide them as soon as we're out of sight." Ray laughed at Fraser's astonished expression. "I've impressed you, I think."
"I'm just amazed at your forethought, Ray."
"You know, sometimes I amaze even myself."
"Though I still fail to understand why you thought it necessary to smuggle them into the country in the first place."
"They came in handy when Gerrard and his goons came after you. I didn't hear you complaining then. And when we crashed in the plane we could've used a ton more ammo and just maybe I wouldn't have had to use the boa."
"Bola," Fraser corrected. "But then you would never have made that remarkable shot."
"That's true though no one saw it except me. But I still would've rather shot him. Less terror in my book. So this time I came prepared again. And don't even think of arresting me," he warned.
Fraser sighed. "But you forgot the bazooka," he pointed out with a glint of humor in his eyes.
Ray narrowed his eyes. "I'll know better next time and thank you so much for reminding me."
Hours later with much of the contents of Ray's pack well hidden, Fraser paused in his tracking. Ray sank to the ground. The pack was still heavy. Fraser knelt by some muddy prints or at least that's what Ray supposed they were as the detective studied them as intently as Fraser. It just looked like churned up mud to Ray.
"Hmmmm," Fraser murmured.
Ray felt a twinge of anxiety. Fraser's "hmm's" were never a good sign. It usually meant something was wrong. "What?!"
"Nothing, Ray," Fraser answered in that annoyingly innocent tone.
"Oh don't give that. You found something and you just won't tell me because you're afraid I'm going to panic or something."
"It's just rather odd, that's all."
"What? What's odd?!"
Fraser looked behind him. Ray spun to follow his gaze. Fraser then calmly returned his scrutiny to the tracks. Ray studied them with him, panic growing by the minute.
"It appears as if ... It's just that ... He was traveling in a straight line directly for the cabin. That's not the pattern of a frightened man running for his life."
Ray sighed with relief. "Is that all? Look maybe this guy just saw the smoke from our fire this morning and followed it."
Fraser relaxed, standing upright. "Yes, of course. You're right, Ray," he said smiling.
"Good. Now let's go find this woman in distress and still try to avoid the bear. That's all I'm asking for here."
"Of course, Ray. You don't ask for much."
"Damn right, I don't."
Another hour later, Fraser stopped again. As much as Ray was grateful, for Fraser's pace was murderous, he dreaded the reason. He friend had that look again. The one that said something wasn't quite right and the doubt was eating away at him.
"Now what!," Ray urged, setting himself on a fallen log.
"I don't recall a wedding band," Fraser said hesitatingly, his eyes distant. He refocused on Ray. "The man wasn't wearing a wedding ring. He has a wife but no ring."
Ray threw up his hands accepting the fact he was cursed to play devil's advocate. "You are such a traditionalist. Not every man wears a wedding ring."
"Of course, I did. I'm a traditionalist. Besides Angie would have boiled me alive in a pasta pot if I hadn't. But that's not the point. Maybe he just took it off for hiking. Didn't want to lose it. Sometimes that's more dangerous than not ever wearing one."
Fraser sighed, nodding his head. "You're right again, Ray. I'm afraid I'm just being paranoid."
"Fraser, you're never paranoid. You've got a hunch. Listen to it. Whatever you do, don't listen to me. Our big concern right now besides avoiding the bear is first, finding out if this man is lying, second, rescue his wife if she does exist and three, get back to the cabin so I can beat the crap out of the guy if two turns out to be a wild goose chase."
"Understood." Fraser pointed. "Diefenbaker's trail leads that way."
"Is the Wild Bunch still with him," Ray asked referring to the wolf pack.
"Yes, but not for much longer, we are reaching the edge of their territory." Fraser pressed on.
"I wish my territory ended right here. I should have stayed in Chicago," Ray mumbled as he doggedly followed Fraser.
* * *
Fraser was kneeling beside a stream bed while Ray relaxed nearby. Ray stretched out a leg which throbbed with fatigue. He stiffened when he heard a rustling in the forest beside him.
"Fraser," he whispered, but Fraser just waved a hand at him and continued prodding the mud at his feet. Ray hefted his rifle and peered into the deep green foliage. He was greeted by a warm nose and a wet tongue. Only years of training prevented him from depressing the trigger.
"Damn wolf! You did that on purpose!"
Diefenbaker bounded past Ray and ran up to Fraser, whining and then barking furiously. He leaped further up the trail.
"He's found her!" Fraser shouted racing after the wolf.
"Fraser wait! What about the bear?" Ray struggled to his feet and ran after the two praying under his breath. "Please don't let there be a bear. Please don't let there be a bear."
Fraser ran to the cliff side where Diefenbaker was standing. "Hello! Can anyone hear me?" Even straining as he was he could not see over the edge.
Ray ran up beside him but did not step as close to the precipice. "Anything?"
Fraser shook his head. "She could be unconscious."
Ray lifted his eyebrows in doubt. If anyone fell off this cliff it would be a miracle if they survived. "Are we sure this is the place?" It was a hell of a drop.
"Diefenbaker seems to think so." Fraser spun slowly around, his eyes scanning the ground about him. "There are footprints around, but no bear tracks. In fact, there hasn't been any bear sign the entire way here," he commented.
"Oh thank God," Ray said. "No bears." Ray then contemplated the ramifications of that fact. "So if there was no bear, what do you think happened here?"
Fraser was silent a moment watching Ray. Finally, he spoke. "Murder."
Ray frowned. The thought had crossed his mind. "But why would he want us to come find her?"
"Maybe he didn't," Fraser answered. "Maybe he was just hoping for us to get him off the mountain and back up his story."
"And you in your enthusiasm decide the two of us can rescue her. Remind me when we get back to the cabin to beat the crap out of this guy right after I knock some sense into you."
Fraser didn't answer but reverted his gaze back to the cliff's edge. "We have to make sure."
"Are you crazy?! Wait a minute, never mind. Of course, you're crazy. What was I thinking? How are we gonna make sure? We can't even see the bottom."
"Well no, not from up here." Fraser was unpacking a rope from his pack.
"Yep, you're crazy."
"We have to make sure, Ray. We can't just leave if there's even a chance she's alive. Besides, we can't accuse a man of murder without evidence."
"Well, don't all these prints tell you anything?"
"Yes." Fraser related the story of the tracks. "There were two people here, one is the man we've been back-tracking and the other print is smaller, delicate like a child or a woman. They were both by the cliff's edge. The man walked away alone in that direction." Fraser pointed in the direction they had just come. "Hers stops here. She could still be alive, Ray."
"If she is then she's made of rubber," Ray commented peering at the drop-off.
Fraser tied one end of the rope about a tree and the other he flung off the side of the cliff. There were knots in the rope about every foot or so. Fraser looked down and for a moment realized the danger. He wished his father would show up for just a second. Then he could send him down for a safe look. But his father was never that convenient. He always showed when Fraser least wanted him.
Fraser glanced at Ray who still clutched his rifle like it was his sole salvation. He turned to the wolf sitting patiently. "Diefenbaker, go scout for some sign of this bear. If there was one, there's got to be a sign somewhere." Ray looked slightly more at ease as Dief vanished into the green.
Ray called after him. "If you find him, whatever you do, don't bring him back here!" Then he remembered the wolf was deaf. "Damn it, you should have told him that."
"I won't be long, Ray. I just want to see the bottom." Fraser eased himself over the edge.
"What should I do?" Ray asked frantically, not liking this scenario one bit, but knew also it was necessary. Fraser's curiosity was like a cat. There was no stopping him.
"Watch out for bears," came the reply from Fraser's disappearing form, "and hope they're not hungry."
"Ha, ha," Ray said, crawling over to the edge and peering over but he couldn't discern Fraser. "Well, see anything?" Ray called out.
"Nothing yet," Fraser's distant voice answered. "I have to get past this lower overhang."
Suddenly Ray heard a sound from behind him.
"Of all the people I had to run into up here. I have to find a goddamn Mountie who's got half the wolf population acting as his personal trackers."
Ray spun around to find the man from the cabin pointing a pistol at him.
"Drop the rifle," the man commanded.
"You won't get away with it, you know that?" Ray said but complied with the order.
"It wasn't supposed to go down this way. I didn't mean..." He stopped speaking abruptly, his eyes narrowing dangerously once again. "It doesn't matter. She's gone and no one will believe it was an accident."
"You're right there, pal, " Ray commented bluntly only to realize that he had made a grievous error. He tried to be sympathetic anyway. "Look, if it was an accident why didn't you just say so? Why concoct this bear story?"
The man licked his lips nervously. "Because I did shove her. I shoved her off the cliff."
"That doesn't quite sound like an accident to me." The man's expression shifted quickly to anger. Ray held up his hands as the man aimed the pistol. "Whoa, wait a minute! I believe you! I believe you! It was an accident. I understand. You had to emphasize your point. You got a little physical. Who would have thought there'd be a cliff right here where you were arguing!"
The anger didn't leave the man's face. Ray cursed his ever present sarcasm. Why couldn't he say the right thing. Fraser would have already been lulling this man into a stupor with some Inuit story of a small boy with a bone-tipped spear trapped with an abandoned seal pup.
Ray inched away from the cliff, but the man stopped him. "Uh-huh. The bottom of that cliff is about to get real crowded.
Ray was desperate. "Look, did I ever tell you the one about the Inuit kid and the abandoned seal....?"
The man leveled the pistol as Ray spun around. The man was going to kill him. He had to get away and return to help Fraser. He felt the weight of his pack. He doubted the pistol could shoot through it, packed as it was. The pistol wasn't of a heavy caliber. If he could only make it to the woods, he'd have a chance. He ran shouting, "Fraser, it's an ambush!"
He felt two slugs hit the backpack but he kept going. The minute he was in the woods, he shed the pack and escaped deeper into the dense underbrush. If he could just lead the man away from Fraser.... * * *
After a minute of chasing Ray, the man realized, he'd lost his chance with the Italian so he headed back towards the cliff. He could track him any time he wanted. The only danger was the Mountie. He moved to the edge and peered over. "I think my friend you are about to have an accident." He pulled a knife from his side and was about to cut the taunt rope. He hesitated. Instead he turned to the tree and untied the rope, letting it slip till it disappeared over the edge.
He heard a scrambling of rocks and then a distinct thud. He was satisfied. It sounded similar to that of Margaret's body hitting the rocks. He bowed his head, running a well-manicured hand at his moist eyes. He had given her all the love and devotion she could ever want. How could she have wanted a divorce? The anger seeped back in. She had started it and fate stepped in to solve the problem for them. He was going to miss her terribly but she was beyond his help now. But he'd be damned if he was going to prison for her. All he had to do was clean up this mess and he could go home.
He would just have to track the Italian. He hefted Ray's back which he had found and threw it over the edge. He didn't want to have to shoot him because that wouldn't help him. He would have to make it look like an accident. The Italian was obviously a tenderfoot. It wouldn't be too hard to eliminate him. Who knew, perhaps the forest might do it for him. * * *
Fraser heard Ray's shout and started back up but when he heard the pistol shots and not a rifle, he realized Ray was in trouble. He climbed faster, until he heard the voice above him. He knew he wasn't going to make it. He looked down. The overhang he mentioned to Ray was about thirty feet below him. He slid down the rope trying to reach it before the rope was cut. He was halfway when the rope jerked. He grabbed for a branch that jutted out beside him just as the rope fell away. He missed, scrapping his hand as he fell down. He scrambled for anything and finally found another limb. His arm nearly jerked out of his socket as it bore his full weight. He struggled to grab it with other his hand but dirt started running down his arm. The branch was being pulled loose.
There was nothing else to grab. So he fell. He hit the overhang badly, feeling agony blossom from somewhere within his body. There was a bright flash of white and then utter darkness. He struggled against it and a figure swam in front of him. He squinted and a woman's frightened face solidified and then faded again.
"My name is Constable Fraser. I'm with the RCMP. I'm here to help you." It was then that the darkness overwhelmed him.
* * *
Ray slid down an embankment and then hid behind a tree and listened. He heard nothing but his own ragged breathing. Damn it, was the man following him or not? He held his breath in an attempt to hear better. There was silence. He let out his breath with a whoosh and stood. Maybe he had lost him.
Yeah, and maybe a wood owl would fly down and ask him if he wanted a biscuit.
But there was only complete silence. He waited for a few minutes but there was still nothing. Finally, the sounds of the forest started up again. Well, if the man hadn't followed him than where was he, Ray questioned.
A deep, hollow pit grew in his stomach. Fraser. He scrambled back up the embankment and then it suddenly hit him. He had no idea where he was. Panic decided to fill that hollow pit.
"Okay," he whispered to himself. "Let's not panic. Remain calm. This is the secret to survival in the woods, according to Fraser anyway. Panicking only makes you run in circles. Of course, I was in a panic as I was running which means that I cut a path wide enough for a herd of elephants to walk abreast in and it's circular in nature. It can't be that hard to follow me back out the way I came."
Ray studied the ground. Everything looked like wet slop to him. Fraser made it all look so easy.
"Okay," he began again. "There's no reason why I can't figure this out. Let's see, what was Fraser always looking at. Mud. He was definitely looking at mud." Ray knelt to examine the mud. It looked normal to him. He ran a sweaty hand across his hair, trying desperately not to get hysterical. Then he noticed an area that was smooth and deep as if a heel had slipped in it. Ray smiled. "That was me. I definitely came this way." He dug in his heels and climbed further, confident that he might just figure it out.
* * *
Diefenbaker came back to the cliff and knew something was wrong. The stranger's smell was here and it shouldn't be fresh. Suddenly, he saw a figure in a familiar red outfit and ran to him.
Fraser Sr. shook his head. "We've got trouble, boy. You need to help Benton's friend. I'll stay with my son."
Dief picked up Ray's scent and followed it. The stranger was following it too and he was traveling fast. Dief flew through the branches.
Fraser Sr. faded away and reappeared next to his son's still form on the overhang. There was blood spreading like a web from a deep gash on his left thigh. Fraser Sr. tried to lay a hand on his son but it melted right through him. "Son, wake up." When there was no response he raised his voice. "Benton, wake up!"
Fraser's sense of consciousness returned in waves. First there was pain, wave after wave of pain, and then others things came slowly to him. Smells, texture, and finally voices. He opened his eyes and a blur of red was before him. He thought it was blood and he lifted a hand to wipe it away. It didn't fade. Instead it came into focus.
"You have to get up son."
Fraser's mind was muddled. "Why?"
"Because you're lying over a 1000 foot drop, your friend is in trouble and a man is about to get away with murder."
"Well, that's reason enough," Fraser replied thickly. He struggled to sit upright. A cry of pain escaped his tight thin lips as he moved. His back was a shooting agony and his leg was like a hot poker had been thrust inside. He bowed his head and breathed roughly.
"Is it broken?" his father inquired.
"My back or my leg?"
"Well, I was referring to your leg, but if it's your back that's broken than we have a bigger problem than I thought."
"Who are you talking to?" a quiet voice asked from the other side of the overhang.
Startled, both Fraser's looked over. The woman was shoving some debris off the edge in an effort to make some more room on the narrow ledge.
"I was just taking account of possible injuries," Fraser answered. The woman had long brown hair and green eyes that glowed from her olive complexion. There were deep shadowed bruises on her body and multiple scrapes. There was also a large gash over her left eye which she had bandaged with a strip of cloth. He would have expected her to have been distraught as to their situation. Instead she was calm and reserved. Remarkable.
She scooted over to his side and quietly examined the leg. "It's not broken." She glanced up. "But you mentioned your back?"
"It's an old injury. I was shot a few months ago. The doctor's decided not to remove the bullet, reasoning that it would be safer to leave it where it was, but I think the bullet has moved. I think it's now sitting on a nerve." Fraser stiffened with another groan, breathing through clenched teeth. "What does the leg look like?"
"Not good, son." his father replied, real concern seeping into his eyes. He let it stray no further. "You're going to have to stitch it up."
"It needs to be stitched up," the woman chorused.
Fraser laughed through moist eyes at the hopelessness of the situation. "I have some stuff in my pack." He leaned over and with the woman's help eased it off his shoulders. "That is your husband up there, isn't it?"
A look of utter rage came over her features. "Yeah. Looks like he decided that a divorce was out of the question so he came up with a simple solution. No fuss, no alimony." She shook her head. "My name is Margaret Williamson. I'm sorry you got caught up in this mess."
"Constable Fraser. It's part of the service," Fraser stated matter-of-factly.
"Well, you're in the same pickle as me now," she said looking up the cliff wall. "Not much can be done from down here though."
"Nonsense," Fraser Sr. snorted. "Mounties always maintain the right. You're the only Mountie in the vicinity. So it's your duty. Get up son. There's a murderer to catch."
"At least you got the motto right." Fraser tried again to move. It was sheer agony, his breath escaped in gasps.
"Your motto is 'You're in the same pickle as me?'" Margaret was confused. "And here I always thought it was "You always get your man."
"A popular ... misconception," Fraser said eying his father.
"Whatever." Fraser Sr. said. At least his son was moving, Fraser Sr. reasoned. He noticed Benton's hat lying at Fraser's feet. "Your luck couldn't be better, son. You managed to save your hat."
"Believe me ... I had nothing ... to do with that. That was ... the last thing ... on my mind." Fraser was now sitting and leaning heavily against the side of the cliff. His eyes were closed and his face a mask of suffering.
"Of course, son. But it's all instinct. You just don't remember doing it, that's all."
Fraser nodded towards his pack. "I managed to bring a first-aide kit in my pack. It contains a sterile needle and thread."
"I've got it," Margaret said drawing forth the items.
Every motion only brought Fraser excruciating agony. It hurt so bad he thought he was going to be ill. He breathed deeply, knowing that it was only going to get worse. He was thankful the woman was here because he doubted he would have been able to stitch it himself. Margaret was cleaning the wound with some antiseptic which burned like hellfire. Fraser gritted his teeth and bore the pain. Finally it was done and it felt like he had run a marathon. His back muscles were cramping and his whole body was trembling. He leaned back trying to relieve the pain in his spine.
"Keep going, miss," Fraser Sr. urged. "Or his grandmother will have to show up and yell at me for not being any help."
"Is she still bothering you?" Fraser asked. He took a deep breath as the woman began the task of stitching the wound.
"Is who still bothering me?" Margaret asked but she did not look up from the task at hand.
"No one." Fraser hissed. "Sorry ... I was just ... distracting myself."
Margaret grunted in response but said nothing.
Fraser's father took over instead. "She never leaves me alone. She's always hovering around, talking to me as if she's lost her marbles. Which she has, by the way. Completely gone. I don't know how it happened but suddenly she's just a babbling idiot, telling me how do to do things, always pointing out my faults. And I have many according to her. She's driving me insane, son. One minute I'm relaxing quietly, minding your business and then suddenly she's there criticizing me. You'd think she'd have something better to do finally. She can go anywhere. Why does she have to follow me around, for pete's sake?"
Margaret straightened, her work done. Fraser leaned back, his hands going limp at his sides. It was done and all of Fraser's strength and resolved faded with the stitching's completion. Sweat beaded and ran down his face washing away some of the blood that streaked his face. He fell into an exhaustive sleep.
Fraser Sr. sat there with his son and waited, contemplating how best to help.
* * *
Ray paused for the hundredth time looking for signs of his passing, mimicking every move Fraser had done on the trip up. The only thing he hadn't stooped to was tasting dirt. He didn't think that it would be of much help under these circumstances. He wasn't that desperate yet. In the meantime, he searched for broken branches, muddy footprints, bits of clothing, etc. Everything Fraser had shown him. It was slow going but he was certain he was on the right trail. It couldn't be much further.
Suddenly, he heard a noise behind him. He whirled and dove, narrowly avoiding the swipe of a rifle butt aimed at his head. He scrambled back as Williamson brought the rifle up to bear. Ray tackled him and they went down in a tangle of limbs. Ray landed on top and grabbed onto the rifle, using it to push the man down. Williamson pushed back and by steady degrees pushed Ray away. Finally, Williamson kicked and rolled and the two men tumbled down a small grade. Ray realized he was at the end of his endurance. The thin air had exacted its toll, his muscles were turning to mud. Williamson smelled victory and then he caught a whiff of something else.
Something came crashing through the woods beside him. It was huge and brown and had large teeth. Williamson screamed, leaped off Ray and ran. Ray had the impression of a large mass flying over his body. His breath escaped his lungs as a tremendous weight stepped on his chest. Screams and breaking branches echoed for a time and then faded away. Ray closed his eyes and then opened them as a familiar wet tongue frantically brushed his face.
"Dief. You brought the calvary." Ray sat up and patted the wolf on the head. "So there *was* a stinkin' bear around here. Geez, now I'm beholdin' to the bloody thing." Ray settled down a bit as Dief stared at him in puzzlement. Ray ran a hand over his face. "Thanks Dief," he said finally.
Suddenly, the crashing came back and was heading directly for them. Ray sprang to his feet. "Time to go, Dief." He ran, imagining the hot, fetid breath of the bear right behind him. He sprinted faster.
Diefenbaker looked back to towards the sound and then after Ray. The detective was going the wrong way. The bear wasn't supposed to come back either; that was the deal. He sighed. Nothing ever went as planned. Dief bounded after Ray.
Ray could still hear the bear crashing through the woods after him. He hated bears. He especially didn't like circus bears. His father took him to the circus once because Ray had begged to see a real live bear. His father wanting to make peace with his wife agreed to spend some time with his son. But his father was furious when Ray became upset when a performing bear decided not to do his act and had started wandering their way. Ray thought the bear was gonna eat him so he cried. And a father yelled at his son.
As Ray pushed branches aside after so many stung his face and arms, he saw a figure standing just up the trail beside a tree. Ray's father waved his arms. "Son," he yelled as Ray approached. "What are you doing? It's just a bear!"
"Shut up," Ray shouted as he ran past.
Seconds later, Diefenbaker ran past the older Vecchio. "It's not a bear, you idiot, it's just a wolf," he observed loudly. Ray's father shook his head and faded away.
Ray was laboring up a dense path when he caught a glimpse of red up ahead. Red like in a Mountie uniform. He almost blurted out Fraser's name till he remembered that Fraser was not wearing his uniform.
"Hey," he shouted. "Hey you, Mountie! I need some assistance here!"
"This way," the RCMP officer waved and then he disappeared into the brush.
"Damn it, wait up!" Ray yelled. He veered in that direction. He glanced down to see Diefenbaker at his side. "Now they show up," he commented. Diefenbaker kept quiet.
Fifteen minutes later, Ray was shocked at his own endurance level. He was still chasing after the elusive Mountie. Of course, the alternative was to be lost again with a mad bear in the woods. Mountie or mad bear? The choice was not too complicated.
Then his feet dropped out from under him. Ray screamed as he slid down a steep embankment which ended further below at a cliff. He spread his limbs and slowed his descent finally latching on to a sturdy tree and stopping abruptly. "That definitely needs a guard-rail," he whispered because he didn't trust his voice.
"Ray," a voice spoke in surprise.
"Fraser?" Ray answered in disbelief.
"Below you and ten feet to your right."
Ray squirmed to the edge till he could see over and there about twenty feet down was Fraser. "Benny, thank God," Ray exhaled with a bowed head. "What a time I've been having."
"Are you alright?" Fraser asked.
"Me? Sure, I always come out on top against a vicious killer and a hungry grizzly bear."
"There was no bear, Ray."
"Oh no," Ray confided in a sarcastic tone. "There was a bear. A great big bear and he ate the murderer."
"I think I need to get you back to Chicago," Fraser said tiredly.
"That's what I've been saying all along," Ray argued, but something wasn't right. Fraser didn't sound like himself. "Benny, you okay?"
"Well actually no, Ray, I'm not."
* * *
A half hour later, Ray and Fraser had absolutely no idea how to get themselves out of this mess. The only solution was for Ray to go for help but Fraser had his doubts. They were far from the cabin and far from help. They had to hope that Williamson had left the radio alone, but Ray had to get there first to confirm that fact..
"I can do this, Benny," Ray said. "I found my way back here, didn't I?" Actually, Ray was terrified. He knew he wasn't that good at back-tracking but he also knew there was no choice. Benny and the woman were counting on him. He had to do it. "I'll bring back help. Besides, there's some Mountie around here. I saw him a while ago, but he's gone now. I'll find him though. You can't hide red serge out here for long. You'd think you guys would have chosen a less obtrusive color." Ray looked up for the hundredth time hoping to see the RCMP officer but only Diefenbaker was there. He tried to convince Dief to go find him but Dief didn't seem to want to leave Fraser.
Fraser give in reluctantly. There was no other way. The cliff wall was too steep and with little or no hand-holds, and secondly, they had no rope or climbing gear. The only consolation was that Diefenbaker would be with him. "It'll be dark soon Ray, perhaps you should wait."
"If I wait too long, you could die. Look, I'll leave now. That should give me a head start and I'll get going again as soon as it's light enough to see."
"If the radio's broken, you'll have to go to Tuktoyaktuk. It's the nearest Inuit village and the nearest help."
"It's due east from the cabin about forty miles."
Ray looked pensive. "Does the sun set in the east or the west?" he asked.
"Oh dear," Fraser sighed.
"I'm kidding. I'm kidding," Ray jested in an attempt to lighten the situation. "I'll be back soon. Is there anything else I can get for you before hand? More water, berries, furry nightcrawlers?" He had found as much as he could and had thrown them over in his bundled jacket. Ray knew of Fraser's fondness for the nightcrawlers.
Fraser shook his head and Ray took a deep steadying breath. There was nothing else left to do so he stood to leave. "I'll be back." he said earnestly.
Fraser nodded and watched him climb back up the steep embankment.
"Will he make it?" Margaret asked.
Fraser smiled. "Of course he will. There's nothing to worry about. We'll be off this cliff in a short time. He's quite adept out here."
She studied him carefully and finally raised her eyebrows. "He's that good, huh?" She wasn't buying this for one second.
"I was referring to my wolf," he said with a smile.
Her tension eased as she smiled warmly back. "We'll let's try to make ourselves comfortable while we wait." She held out Ray's bundle. "Furry nightcrawler?"
* * *
Two hours later it was growing dark and Ray had no idea where he was, but he realized he needed shelter. "Okay Dief, where should I go? Do you know this area?"
Diefenbaker looked up at him and whined.
"No problem. I'll find us a place." Ray wished he was as confident as he sounded. Suddenly, he saw again a flash of red through the green foliage. "There he is again," he shouted. "Hey Mountie, we need some help over here!" But the figure disappeared. "Get him Dief, he's our ticket out." They both ran after the officer. "He's gonna help us even if I have to drag him back here by the little noose around his neck."
Ray pushed the bushes aside and scrambled after the red serge. "You better run, woodpecker," he voiced breathlessly, "because if I get my hands on you I'm gonna show you some American manners. What kind of Canadian are you? I'm asking for help here. It's in your moral code to respond." He saw the figure off to his left. It was the closest he'd been all day. Ray leaped through the bushes and came face to face with not the Mountie but a cave and shelter.
Luck was with Ray. He had a fire started in record time (his best yet) and was settled in before the rain began. It was a light wetting but it was one they didn't need right now. He thought about Benny and the woman and hoped the overhang provided some sort of shelter. Ray brought in as much dry wood as he could find and it looked enough to last through the night. It was too dark out for Ray to do much more. The two of them lay near the fire and fell asleep, praying tomorrow would be a better day.
Fraser Sr. reappeared beside the still figures. Only Diefenbaker raised his head in acknowledgement. "They'll get through this Diefenbaker," the Mountie said easing the wolf's mind. "I promise you that even if I have to drag Benton up myself." He looked over at the wolf. "Of course, the more logical course of action is to train this tenderfoot." He gestured at Ray's sleeping form.
* * *
Margaret open her eyes to find the young Mountie observing her. She had drifted to sleep for what seemed like only seconds until she noticed the dark shadows of evening reaching out towards them. As soon as her emerald pupils locked with his blue ones, he looked swiftly away. She smiled slightly and stretched carefully, feeling the pull of dried blood on the deeper scrapes about her body, but at least the throbbing across her skull had eased.
"How are you feeling, Constable?" she inquired.
"I'm fine," he responded.
But the grimace of pain which flickered briefly across his features told her the truth. She was wonderfully perceptive. It was the one trait that had saved her life when Michael had come up behind her. She had quickly accessed his mood and his intentions. She had tried to reason with him but it was soon apparent he was no different. When she had tried to move past him, he had painfully grabbed her arms, forcing her to twist away. He misinterpreted the action and shoved her roughly in anger. She felt herself go over and screamed his name.
She had slid face down along the cliff wall grasping at any outcropping or branches she could find. It had slowed her descent. God had intervened by placing the outcrop just below her. Michael had no idea she had survived. He was a coward. The Mountie had told her what he overhead before he fell. Michael had turned into a murderer just to save his own skin. Her own face twisted into a grimace of emotional pain and she shoved those thoughts away.
Margaret moved closer to Fraser. "Where does it hurt, Constable?"
Fraser waved his hand. "I'm fine, really."
"I'm a skilled chiropractor, or at least I was before marrying Michael. It's been about two years but I'm sure I still have the touch. May I please?"
Fraser hesitated but then relented. He'd try anything. In this state, he was of little use to anyone. If something happened to Ray, they'd be on their own and he needed to be mobile. He rolled over and felt her pull his shirt up. Cold fingers brushed over his skin and drew a sharp breath from him.
"Painful?" she asked.
"No," he whispered. It was just the sensation of her touch or perhaps it was the damage to the nerves that made his skin so sensitive.
She gave a low whistle at the sight of the entry wound. Even after all this time it still looked red and horrible. "Nasty," she said quietly. "Line of duty?"
Fraser was silent for a moment then he answered. "Yes. I was apprehending a... criminal...I got in the way of friendly fire."
She could hear unspoken volumes in his tone but she didn't press. "I'll be as gentle as I can. Just bear with me a minute." She began applying small amounts of pressure around the bullet. Each finger was felt and though it hurt it was not excruciating. Then she found the bullet. A sharp gasp came out. She immediately released her hold.
"Okay, I found it." She laid a soft hand on his shoulder. "Sorry."
"No problem," he responded quietly, breathing heavily.
Her hands again roamed along his spine and manipulated it gently with pressure, working her way gently towards the injury. "I'm afraid to do too much with out knowing more about it's position, but I might be able to relieve some of the spasms." She kneaded the muscles around the wound and Fraser had too admit it felt better. He began to relax.
He must have dozed off for when he awoke it was beginning to rain. Margaret was gently shaking him.
"It's raining," she said.
Fraser sat up carefully. His eyes widened in surprise. The pain in his back was greatly reduced. He rubbed his back experimentally. "You do remarkable work, Ms. Williamson."
"Thank you, but call me Margaret from now on. I no longer want to carry Michael's name."
"Understood." He gestured for her to get as close to the cliff wall as possible. The temperature was starting to drop. He could feel it through his damp clothes. There was a deep crack in the edge of the overhang. "Get under there," he suggested. "It looks deep enough to shelter you from the rain."
She took a quick glance for spiders and rolled into the crevice laying as straight as possible. Her shoulders brushed the stone above her. The rain was slanting slightly and still managed to find her left side. It took Fraser only a second to lie down beside her, his back to the weather, shielding her from the onslaught of the rain.
She opened her mouth to say something, but Fraser shook his head. "I'll be fine."
"You say that a lot, you know," she observed.
Fraser smiled thinly. "Because it's true. Why don't you tell me about yourself? What were you doing up here? It'll help pass the time."
She gave a soft laugh that turned quickly bitter. "I grew up here so it was the logical place to come to get my head together, gather my nerve to challenge Michael. He was so adamant about not getting a divorce. I knew it was going to be a hard battle, I just didn't think it was going to be for life or death. I never realized he would follow me here." She folded her arms and laid her head upon them, her pale face turned towards Fraser.
He could just barely make out her outline in the dimness of the twilight. Her skin was almost translucent and practically glowed within the small crevice. "You seem to be handling this all quite well," Fraser noted.
She shrugged, the movement only bringing a quiet shifting sound in the darkness. "I started suspecting Michael's darker side about a year ago. I kept thinking it was just a phase, that the things I'd heard about him were rumors and lies." Her tone had dropped lower. There was a sadness to her voice.
Fraser felt the pain of his own recent betrayal. "Maybe you just didn't want to believe," he said thinking more of himself.
Margaret was silent a moment, judging his comment against her own feelings. In the end, she knew he was right. "You sound as if you know what I'm talking about."
"I know a little about the darkness of people's souls. To some that darkness is obvious, but you can't see it because to admit it is to condemn an emotion you thought was as strong as life itself and a part of yourself will forever doubt that strong of an emotion again."
She felt her eyes moisten as the emotions she had been ignoring this day finally caught up. The Constable was hitting far too close to home. He truly did understand. "I really did love Michael," she offered. "He treated me like no other man before. I was important to him and that mattered to me. But he had a past that he wasn't willing to give up, a darkness that he revelled in. But I couldn't live there with him. I wanted to. God, how I wanted to just be with him." Her voice broke suddenly, but then regained it's composure though it stayed no louder than a whisper. "But it wasn't for me. There's only so far I was willing to go into that realm for someone regardless of how strong I loved him. What he was doing was wrong and my mother taught me well enough to recognize it for what it was."
"What was he doing?" Fraser asked practically dreading the answer. Margaret seemed far stronger than he in her decisions. Her conviction about what was right was deeper than his. While he was immersed in doubt, she was just sad. She didn't have regrets.
Margaret breathed deeply in the quiet of the small space. "He was selling drugs. Maybe if he was just using them himself it would have been different. I could've helped him then for he was only hurting himself. But instead, he hurt others and it was that difference that I couldn't tolerate. He felt no remorse for his actions. He thought he was absolved of all sin because it was their own weakness which brought them to him." She was silent again. "He turned so cold then to me," she finally added. "That wasn't the man I married. That man knew love, knew what love I needed. He wanted to care for me and make me happy, but the price was too high for me. I couldn't, not at someone else's expense."
"Yet he wants to kill you now," Fraser said understanding more than he wanted.
"I don't think he meant too." Then she laughed humorlessly. "I don't know. I don't know him anymore. He was angry and yet frightened as well, but once I went over the edge he decided it was over. There was only himself to worry about now. All that remained was a clean-up operation." She glanced over at his dim form. "That meant you and your friend."
She turned away ashamed. "What a fool I've been. Whatever love he had for me has twisted into something else. I guess in his mind I had to pay for not doing what he wanted of me." Her voice took on a hard edge. "But he's in for a surprise, I don't die on request. And I *can* let go of my love for him. He obviously doesn't deserve it."
"No, he doesn't," Fraser said softly.
Margaret laid a soft cold hand on his which warmed slowly by their combined heat. "Thank you for listening. I needed to expel some of that. I'm sorry if I brought back memories for you. It looks like we're quite the pair, you and I."
He grasped her hand. "Letting go is an important step. I'm glad you didn't have to do it alone. I didn't."
Fraser nodded. Then realized she couldn't see him in the darkness. "Yes, that's sort of why we're up here. We're rebuilding my father's cabin together. Ray calls it a do over. A chance for me to also start rebuilding my life and forget about her. He's stayed by me like a true friend."
"They're just as hard to find," she said.
"Then consider me one of yours," he offered. He felt her squeeze his hand.
"I already do."
"My name is Benton," he said softly.
"Hello, Benton." She said nothing else, content with the fact that she wasn't alone and the two of them drifted to sleep.
* * *
Ray awoke early the next morning and stretched stiff muscles that argued in protest. "Oww," he murmured. "What I wouldn't give for a soft bed."
"Some pine branches would have softened the ground for both of you," a voice spoke opposite him.
"Ahhh!" Ray jumped back startled by the red-suited old man sitting across from him. Then he recognized him. It was the Mountie from the woods who wouldn't stop to help. "You! Where the hell have you been? I could have used some help back there. We got two people hanging on a cliff face."
"I was scouting the perimeter."
"For what?" Ray asked. "The bear took care of the murderer. What else is out there?"
"Well, the bear for one thing. You're staying at his house."
Ray looked about his surroundings. He stood up quickly. "This is the bear's cave?!"
Fraser Sr. nodded. "We've got a long way to go. So let's get a move on." Fraser Sr. rose and walked out of the cave.
Ray fumed as he followed the Mountie. He wasn't gonna lose him this time. He caught up with him outside. Though the Mountie wasn't in a hurry to disappear for a change.
"So where were you when we needed you? Was there some old lady you had to help across a stream?" Ray asked sarcastically.
Fraser Sr. debated whether to leave the detective right then and there but for his son's sake he relented a little and then he fibbed. "I was tracking the murderer."
"Did you find him? Did the bear get him?" Ray had a morbid curiosity.
"Oh I definitely think so." Actually, Fraser Sr. had no idea what happened to Williamson. But most likely the bear had finished him off. "What's that on your chest?" Fraser Sr. asked, squinting in the dim light. "It looks like a...."
Ray looked down and was shocked to see a big dusty bear print on shirt. "The uh...bear stepped on me in his enthusiasm to eat the murderer."
Fraser Sr. just stared in disbelief. Finally, he said, "Oh."
Ray shrugged. "What's to eat around here and please don't say nightcrawlers because I'm not eating any."
Fraser Sr. sighed. "They're a good source of protein, but as a substitute there's a plant that is also good to eat. It will give you energy not to mention keeping your hair nice and shiny. It has two leaves per segment and a frothy yellow top."
"Frothy? What the hell is frothy? Just draw me a picture of the damn thing. Frothy," Ray repeated shaking his head."
"I can't draw," the officer admitted.
"What do you think I am? A critic?"
"Just look for something yellow," Fraser Sr. urged. He knew exactly where it was but he had to find a way to trick Ray into picking it for him. Being ethereal made it extremely difficult to grasp things.
Five minutes later, he called Ray over. "I've found some."
Ray came trotting over. "Great, pick it and let's go." He turned away.
"Wait," Fraser Sr. said, holding up a hand. "I think I heard something. I'll be right back. Pick the plant and head in that direction." He briskly moved into the woods.
Ray looked around him cautiously but heard nothing. "I don't hear anything," he commented in a whisper but the Mountie was gone. Ray noticed how still all the branches were as if no one had even passed. "Damn, that Mountie's good," he thought aloud. "Maybe even better than Benny." He picked some of the weed and took off in the direction the Mountie had indicated.
* * *
Early the next morning, Margaret awoke to find Fraser already up. The sun was shining brightly and it warmed her spirit as well as her soul. Her bad dreams of the night faded as she looked over at the magnificent view of the valley far below them. She crawled out and did some gentle stretching, muscles still aching in protest. She settled herself near the edge of the overhang watching Fraser.
"Good morning," she said.
Fraser looked over at her. "Good morning." He was wearing his hat and she had to admit he looked damn good in it.
"What are you up to?" she inquired protectively, watching as he leaned dangerously over the edge of the cliff while clinging to a small outcrop a foot above his head.
"I was studying the hand-holds from here to the overhang where Detective Vecchio was yesterday. I thought perhaps there might be a chance to reach it."
"And your conclusion."
"It's risky. Too risky."
"Especially in your condition," she pointed out. "I'm willing to just sit and wait for now." She reached for some berries still left over from Ray's bundle. She noticed that Benton hadn't eaten yet. She offered him some.
"No thank you," he declined and continued studying the immediate area.
"Now there's a man," a voice spoke abruptly beside Margaret.
Margaret jumped and then sighed, "Mother." Unnerved, she scooted a little further from the edge.
"I'm just here to point out the obvious, dear." The small, old woman dressed in a light blue frock and hat pointed at Fraser. "I'm pointing, dear. That's the kind of man you needed to marry."
"Thank you, Mother. I would have never guessed."
"Don't get smart with me. I can't help it if you're unable to recognize a prize when it falls into your lap. Quite literally I might add. And a Mountie to boot." A grin twisted around the wrinkled face. She glanced around her sobering. "Good Lord, how are you going to get out of this, Margaret?"
"We're working on it, mother," she whispered not wanted Fraser to hear her talking apparently to herself. "We're working on it."
Fraser finally limped over and eased carefully down beside her. "There's some possible hand-holds that bridge this ledge to the other. If it comes to it, we'll take the chance. But we got some time." He smiled at her.
Margaret reacted to it in a way she hadn't thought possible. She turned quickly away before he saw any trace of it in her expression. And she came face to face with her mother's leering grin.
"Don't repress those urges, dear. Act upon them." She glanced around her daughter. "If you don't, I will."
Margaret almost reprimanded her but then she remembered Fraser. Instead she stood up and moved away from both of them. Unfortunately, she couldn't go very far.
"So what was her name?" she asked of Fraser instead. "The woman who hurt you?"
Her mother jumped right in with her opinions. "What are you doing? The last thing you should be asking about is his old girlfriends. Haven't I taught you anything about how to pick up boys?"
Fraser was silent for a time but then he remembered how Margaret had opened up to him last night. It was only right to reciprocate. "Victoria," Fraser answered quietly. Her name fell clumsily off his lips. He hadn't spoken her name aloud since it all happened. It was like a shard of glass that bit deep into his heart. It was embedded in his flesh as deeply as the bullet. The even greater pain was the guilt over his desire to leave with her on the train. The fact that he was willing to go with her ate at his very soul. He had admitted as much to Ray that day during his convalescence and Ray somehow had forgiven him. But Fraser couldn't forgive himself. He was ashamed at his own frailty. All those years he had prided himself on his commitment to the law, above all other breeds of police officers. And instead he found he was just a man.
Within minutes he was relating the entire tale to Margaret. It was easier to talk to her than it was even to Ray. Maybe it was because Margaret had no connection to those events and the overwhelming guilt Fraser felt every time he talked to Ray seemed less painful. He actually spoke of things to Margaret that he never even spoke to Ray about. Of course, Ray knew him so well that some things didn't have to be said but finally voicing them out loud purged a great deal of Fraser's anxiety.
Margaret only nodded from time to time sensing the fragile state of this man whose very soul had almost crossed the line from light to dark all for the sake of one woman. A man whose very life was justice and duty and it had almost been destroyed. She suppressed a shiver at how close they had both come to giving up everything that had meant something in their lives. Her cheeks were damp when Fraser's story ended and he looked out over the divide.
Margaret kneeled next to him and encircled his shoulders with her arms. She just held him saying nothing. She glanced over at her mother and found the woman softly crying as well. Her mother nodded at her and then faded away.
* * *
Ray flew into the cabin, hope springing eternal that the radio was operational. Within seconds the spring ran dry. The remnants of the radio lay strewn about the floor.
"Damn," he cursed, tired, frustrated and now fearful. "Why doesn't he have any damn locks on his property?" he voiced venomously.
Fraser Sr. looked about the skeletal frame of the cabin. Since there were no walls yet entrance was possible from every direction. He raised his eyebrows at Ray.
Ray ignored him. "He's too damn trusting for his own good. And this is what happens."
"And what would you have had him do? Let the woman die and the man get away with murder? He has a duty to perform. I fail to see what this has to do with locks."
"I'm not saying he shouldn't have rescued that woman. I'm saying if he had had a lock on his door, I wouldn't have to go to Tuktoyaktuk. That's what I'm saying! Do you know how long that's gonna take?"
Fraser Sr. missed Ray's point. He waved a hand about him. "Even with a locked door the criminal could just waltz in. The place has no walls, for heaven's sake."
Ray sighed. "He should have locked the radio up somewhere, that's all. Listen to me. They're not gonna last out there while we trudge forty miles through the mud to get a bunch of Eskimos." Ray stooped to grab some rope and extra supplies. "I'm going back up the mountain and try to get them off that cliff. You go on and get help from those Inuits and bring them back here."
Fraser Sr. panicked. Ray was the only one who could convince the Inuit to come. "I can't go to Tuktoyaktuk!"
"You're a Mountie, for christ's sake! What's the big deal?"
"I'm ... I'm ...," Fraser Sr. tied desperately to make Ray understand. It wouldn't do him any good to go to Tuktoyaktuk. They wouldn't be able to see him. It just didn't work that way. Finally he knew exactly what he had to say and he didn't like telling him, not one bit.
"I'm old," he told the detective quietly, ashamed of his admission.
Ray stared at him shock and then burst into laughter. "That's it?! You're old! You've been traipsing around this mountain for two days and now you're worried about being over the hill. You've set a hiking pace that Fraser would enjoy and you're not even breathing hard and you expect me to think you're feeble?! After what I saw you do lately, I'm the last one to quibble about your age.
"Besides," Ray continued. "I don't even know where Tuktoyaktuk is. I'd only be guessing and probably guess wrong with the way my luck's been running. Another thing, are you strong enough to pull up Fraser and the woman?"
Fraser Sr. remained silent.
"No, I didn't think so. Look. It's you or nobody going to Tuktoyaktuk." Ray walked past him back outside.
Fraser Sr. followed hesitatingly. "Well at least tie a note to Diefenbaker, just in case."
"A note!?" Ray exclaimed.
"I might not make it. Something could happen to me. This way if I don't, the wolf can still bring help," Fraser Sr. explained, proud of his quick thinking.
"You'll make it," Ray said confidently, moving off.
"Detective!" the Mountie yelled. Ray stopped and looked back. "Please write a note and give it to Diefenbaker."
Ray studied the old man. Then asked him one question. "Why can't you?"
"I ... I ... only can write French," he replied. "I'm French-Canadian and never learned how to write in English and this tribe of Inuit can't read French."
Ray's jaw dropped open. Then he just shook his head. The Mountie looked so forlorn that Ray took pity on him. He got some paper and wrote a brief message. He glanced up at Fraser Sr. while tying it to Dief's neck.
"You're not really a Mountie, are you? You're some escaped lunatic wandering the Yukon in red serge."
Fraser Sr. crossed his arms and let loose a humph, ignoring the detective.
Ray stood finally and gathered his things. "There, you happy?"
"Immensely," the Sr. Mountie stated gruffly. What I go through for my son, he thought with irritation. I'll never let him forget this.
* * *
Ray trudged back up the mountain after making a stop where Fraser and he had hid the contents of the heavy pack yesterday. That seemed like years ago now. The feel of the rifle in his hands calmed his mind slightly. His new pack was now full of food and medical supplies and rope and tackle. And he actually had a sense of where he was heading. He allowed a small bit of euphoria to creep in. It didn't last long.
"So, you're going back up there to face your fear. It's about time." His father's sharp nasal Italian accent grated in Ray's ears. "I want you to shoot that bear right between the eyes, like a man," he emphasized.
"I am not going back to get the bear," Ray shouted, halting in the middle of the forest. "I don't want anything to do with that bear! Just leave me alone!"
"I'm here to help you get over this phobia of bears."
"I don't have a phobia. I have respect. Anyone with any sense has respect for bears," Ray argued.
"Bears are harmless. They eat berries and bugs, not people," his father countered.
"Since when did you become an expert on bears? Is the Discovery channel available in the afterlife all of a sudden?" Ray sighed letting go of his frustration. But it continued to burn deep within and he had to expel it. "You know, if you were any kind of father you wouldn't have yelled at me when the circus bear charged in my direction. You should've comforted your son and let him know you were there to protect him. Instead you yelled louder than the damn bear. I was more scared of you than I was of the bear."
"You see it worked! I got your mind off the bear."
A disgusted Ray continued walking. "Forget it," he threw back over his shoulder. "I'm going to save my friend."
"Some friend," his father retorted. "What's the matter with you? Can't you see he's nothing but trouble?"
Ray turned back around. "What's the matter with *me*?" he shouted in disbelief. "What's the mater with *you*?" Ray took a deep, calming breath. His father always did this to him. "Why are you here, pop? You were no help last time and you're no help this time. Just go away."
"Why should I?" his father countered angrily. "So you can keep making the same mistakes over and over again? I can't believe you're still hanging out with that nut. He's trouble, always trouble. Vecchio's have always stayed out of harm's way."
"Yeah pop, that's why I became a cop, to stay out of trouble," Ray said sarcastically.
"I never understood that," his father commented. "That's the last thing I expected you to do."
"That's why I did it! I wanted to be someone, to make something of myself."
"And instead you're hanging out with this Mountie character who continually makes you look like a fool in front of the department. Yeah, you're making something of yourself, an ass!"
"You know pop, I bet everyone else's parents come back from the dead and praise their kids, but not mine! You're even worse than when you were alive." Ray moved on down the trail.
"It's because I care about you."
Ray stopped short turning on his father. "No, that's not it!" he said sharply, "If you really cared, you'd see me for what I am, a better man than you. But you don't. You just want me down to your level because you hate the fact that I'm a better person than you ever were." Ray pivoted abruptly and strode away deeper into the woods leaving his father to stand alone and silent.
* * *
It was growing dark and Fraser was occupying his time by creating a rope out of the cut up strips of his pack. Margaret watched him with amazement for a few minutes and then leaned back against the cliff wall and closed her eyes. It was quite ingenious but she instinctively knew it would not be long enough to reach either the top of this bluff or the one to their left. But still Fraser worked steadily.
Fraser gave a little start as a flash of red moved in his peripheral vision. "Dad," he whispered.
"Hello son. How are you?" his father responded sitting with his legs dangling off the edge.
"Where have you been?"
A frown creased the elder Mountie's brow. "With Nanook of the North, where else?"
"Ray? You were following Ray?"
"Yes, of course. Didn't trust him. He really is a complete tenderfoot out here. Didn't even know how to bed down with some pine branches. Just slept on the ground. Pathetic really."
"Where is he now?" Fraser asked concern creeping in.
Fraser Sr. pointed over to his left. Wide-eyed, Fraser looked over and saw Ray sliding down the steep embankment on the other bluff.
Margaret climbed quickly to her feet moving past her mother who stood staring at the new Mountie with extreme interest.
"Oh good. Another one," she whispered to her daughter.
"The radio was operational?" Fraser asked hopefully, the only answer for the speed of Ray's return.
"Nope. Shredded like old newspaper," the detective replied.
"You made it all the way to Tuktoyaktuk and back already?" Fraser inquired with new respect for his friend.
"Of course not! Who do you think I am? You?"
"Then what are you doing here?" Margaret argued.
Ray glared at her a moment. "I sent someone even better to Tuktoyaktuk."
"Who?" Fraser queried.
"A Mountie. A found another Mountie in the woods. Can you believe it?! You guys are all over the place out here. Which is great in this instance."
"Who was he?"
"I don't know actually. Never asked his name but he was, I don't know about my height, around 60 years old I guess, weathered face, red serge, kinda senile."
As Ray continued to describe the Mountie, Fraser looked over at his father who smiled and shrugged. Fraser's jaw dropped open.
"Oh my God," Fraser said. "What were you doing?"
"What do you mean what was I doing," Ray shouted. "I found help. He may be old but he's a qualified Mountie. He'll be there and back in record time."
Fraser Sr. made an apologetic expression. His son merely dropped his head in his hands. "What was I supposed to do?" his father asked. "He saw me."
"I thought that was impossible," Fraser argued.
Ray spoke up. "That's how much faith you have in other Mounties? I can't believe it. I thought you all stuck together or something. Well even if he doesn't make it. Dief's with him and I tied a note to him. He'll bring the Eskimos, don't worry."
"The note was actually my idea," Fraser Sr. said aside to his son.
Fraser was still stuck on the fact that Ray had seen his father. "So why can't he see you now?"
His father shrugged. "Don't look to me to explain the afterlife. It's a lot more complicated than the bible led us to believe. Maybe your friend just doesn't need me anymore. His confidence in his new-found abilities seems to make me unnecessary."
"That note was a very wise idea," Margaret's mother offered, stalking her way behind Benton Fraser.
Fraser Sr. jumped and looked around his son. "Who's that?" he asked suspiciously.
Fraser glanced behind him at the only figure visible. "That's Margaret."
The old woman laughed. "My name's Ellen. Margaret is my daughter. He can't see me," she said indicating Fraser.
"Oh, I thought it odd that you would both have the same name." Fraser Sr. shifted uncomfortably. He didn't like the way Ellen was looking at him. It was like a hungry wolverine staring at a cornered field mouse. Ellen just continued to grin at him.
"While we're waiting for the Eskimo Rescue Patrol, I'm gonna get the two of you off that ledge." Ray began unpacking the rope and materials needed.
"Good thinking, Ray."
* * *
Hours later, they were settled down in a small clearing. Fraser didn't see his father around anymore. He was probably off doing something adventurous in the afterlife. Ray had just finished taking care of Fraser's wounded leg and he was quiet and pensive.
Margaret was relieved that her mother was gone for a moment. Now she could concentrate better. As much as she enjoyed her mother's company there were some things Margaret wanted to handle by herself. Fraser was one of them. She decided some tea would be nice and offered to get some water from a nearby stream.
After she left Fraser studied his friend. "Ray, is something wrong?"
Ray shrugged. "I've just decided that the big outdoors is a very dangerous place to be and I think I'll have to decline any further invitations to come out here."
"Whatever happened to the man who once said, You can't avoid nature. You have to work with it. "
"He was an idiot drifting on a sense of euphoria."
"Ray," Fraser began but Ray didn't let him finish.
"When I said on the raft we should do this annually, I didn't mean for it to be almost an exact repeat of last year. I didn't want a crime to solve. I didn't want you to injure yourself and I certainly didn't mean for me to have to rescue us again. All I wanted was for us to rebuild your father's cabin. Stop taking me so literally, okay?"
"Believe me, Ray, the last thing I wanted was for this to happen. I was just following your wishes, that's all."
"Fraser, the next time I say I want to come out here again, don't listen to me. I've gone temporarily insane and should be ignored. Something bad always happens to us in the woods. First we crash in a plane and nearly die, now you fall off a cliff and we're stuck out here. It just isn't a good thing, Benny. Somebody's trying to tell us something."
"First of all we're not stuck out here Ray. Diefenbaker is probably on his way back with the local Inuits. We'll be back at the cabin in a couple of days. However, I will have to admit Ray that I'm a little puzzled by our luck. This normally doesn't happen to me."
"So what are you saying? That I'm bad luck."
"Not at all. I'm just saying that you've somehow got the wrong impression of life in the Territories. It's normally quite restrained out here."
"Oh, so life out here isn't mad bears, murderers, and carrying you around?"
Fraser felt a pang of guilt. "No Ray, it isn't. I'm sorry if I've been a burden."
"Look, let's just face it Benny. I'm not cut out for this sort of thing. I'm a city boy. Chicago born and raised and no amount of sink or swim episodes is going to make me into Daniel Boone. It's just not me." Then Ray smiled sensing Benny's anguish. "Though I have to admit, I always wanted a coon-skin cap."
Fraser knew Ray didn't always mean what he said. He just needed for Fraser to understand things and as long as he did, Ray was content. Things would be alright now between them. Ray was trying to make amends and Fraser played the game as he always had. "Yes, I can see the appeal, Mr. Armani," he said straight-faced.
Ray glanced over at Fraser and smiled. He then shrugged. "Aw, it's just one of those childhood longings that pop never realized. I'll get over it. It's probably for the better anyway. I only would have wound up being terrified of raccoons too." He offered a puzzled Fraser some biscuits. "I'll explain it to you sometime. Watch it, they're hot."
* * *
Fraser Sr. stood quietly in the stillness of the forest. He knew the unnatural calm wasn't because of his presence. The darkness surrounding him even making his brilliant red uniform seem black. A figure moved out of the night before him and he jumped. He couldn't help himself. He knew who it was.
Ellen smiled at him as she approached. "There you are."
Fraser Sr. took a step backwards fear building rapidly inside his chest. "I'm married," he blurted out before he could stop himself.
Ellen's smile never wavered but she added a wink to it. "So am I." She looped an arm through his, her grip strong and determined.
"Oh dear," the Mountie whispered. She laughed. Fraser Sr. had to admit it was a nice sound, clear and unpretentious.
"I won't bite. I promise," she assured him.
Ellen nudged him to a walk as she carefully brushed some dirt off of her pretty lavender dress which she had worn especially for the occasion. She heard him sigh and when he began to look around nervously she had to comment. "We're not doing anything to be ashamed of. Trust me, I'm harmless. You're not being unfaithful."
Fraser Sr. glanced quickly in her direction, a scarlet flush creeping up from his red serge. "Of course not."
She smiled knowingly. "We're just two spirits drifting along with our misdirected children."
That smug condescending look irritated the Mountie. "Madam, you are exasperating."
"...kindly...," Fraser Sr. murmured under his breath. "Besides, I'm not so much concerned with you as I am with the state of silence in these woods."
"It is unusually quiet," she noted.
"We're not alone," he said cryptically.
Ellen jumped to an immediate conclusion. "Michael." She literally spat out his name.
Fraser Sr. looked towards a fir tree to their left. Standing casually against it was Ray's father.
Ellen squinted at the figure. "Who's he?"
"The third parent member of our party."
"Oh, the detective's father," she said. "Hello there. I'm Ellen and this is..."
"I know who he is," Ray's father announced angrily. "A trouble maker. Always sticking his nose into my son's business."
"Your son's business?!" Fraser Sr. sputtered with barely suppressed fury. "I have no interest in your son. I'm here to help Benton."
"That's not what you were doing this morning. God, you're making him into Paul Bunyan."
"A little knowledge about wilderness survival never hurt anyone. It saved him from...."
"All right! That's enough!" Ellen's patience was at an end. "You're ruining a perfectly good evening stroll. Both of you."
Both men turned to study the small woman who stood angrily between them. "One word from either of you not relating either to the beautiful state of the evening or my wonderful new dress is going to seriously regret their demise."
The two men looked at each other and weighed their prospective chances. Then shrugged consecutively.
"Nice dress," Ray's father said.
"Cool night," Fraser Sr. noted.
"That's better," Ellen said with a grin and slipped her arms through both of theirs. "Now where were we?"
"I was trying to explain why the woods are so quiet," Fraser Sr. began.
"Oh that's right," Ellen said. "So what's your theory?"
* * *
Margaret filled the pot from a deep clear pool, the cold water numbing her fingertips. Her eyes lifted to take in the darkness which surrounded her. There was never a stillness out here in the woods. They practically breathed life. Michael had hated the outdoors. It terrified him. It contained things he couldn't control or intimidate. A shiver ran through her at his name.
But she was finally free. Her breath came easier, the crisp sharpness cleaning deep within her lungs. She was alive and able to bring her life back into focus. Two years of her life was gone. Some of it she would remember, the rest of it she would try to forget and move on to something more positive. More law-abiding perhaps.
A branch snapped to her left. She spun around at the sound, her fingers slipping loose of the pot. It sank beneath the surface to settle on the rounded stones on the bottom. The woods came to a sudden rest in its activities, enough so to unnerve Margaret. She reached blindly for the sunken pot. Terror drilled at her heart. She imagined William crouching nearby watching her, hatred and anger demanding vengeance.
She glanced at the dim glow of Vecchio's fire behind her, safety and a new life beckoning. Her numb fingers picked up the pot, only half filled, and stood slowly. It wasn't Michael, she scolded herself. He's dead. Vecchio said so. It's just the imagination working overtime. That's what happens when you start dwelling on the past.
The forest started showing signs of life again, but Margaret's nerves still remained raw. If a figure stayed still long enough, it starts to blend into the background and the woods forget the danger. She kept her senses, inadequate as they were, trained to her left as she backed her way to the fire and her new found friends.
With a sigh of relief and a prayer of thanks in the offering she stepped into the ring of comfort. With shaking hands she set the pot on the embers of the fire.
"Anything wrong?" Fraser the ever-attentive Mountie asked.
She shrugged as nonchalantly as possible. "I thought I heard something out there. The whole forest stopped.... breathing, if you know what I mean."
Fraser nodded, while Ray rolled his eyes.
Agitation seeped into her features. "I didn't expect you to understand, Mr. It-Takes- Me-An-Hour-to-Start-a-Fire. There are certain things the forest does and when it doesn't, it means something. Okay?"
"All right! All right! I didn't mean anything by it, honest." He threw his hands out in defeat. "And it didn't take me an hour to start the fire. Forty-five minutes, tops." He added under his breath.
Ray was reaching for another biscuit when Fraser started to get up. Ray was there instantly to push him back down. "Just where do you think you're going?" Before Fraser could even reply, Ray added. "Forget it. You're not going anywhere. There is nothing out there except maybe a very fat bear and a deranged Mountie. Neither of which warrant wandering around in the dark. So just relax."
"Ray, you're assuming that the bear killed Mr. Williamson. It could be that perhaps it didn't. It might be prudent just to have a look. It would be very easy for him to slip in here tonight while we're all exhausted."
Ray's face twisted into a grimace. "Don't talk me into going, Fraser. It's not gonna happen. Do you hear me? I'm starving and the last place I'm going is into those dark creepy woods and you're not going to make me."
Minutes later, Ray gingerly stepped around a black shape stretched out before him in the opaque forest. He nibbled at the biscuit he had brought along. It had better be only a log, Ray demanded. "I can't believe he made me come out here! For what?!" He held the rifle tightly to his chest. "I don't need this. I really don't!" he mumbled furiously to himself. He took several deep breaths not really believing that it would calm him down. He was right. A soft rustling to his right spun him around. He strained for any further noise but he couldn't hear anything. He couldn't see anything either for that matter.
He was tempted to shoot first and ask questions later but what if it wasn't Williamson. Maybe it was the bear. The last thing he wanted to do was wound a bear. He didn't need to watch any wildlife shows to know that. He had watched enough shows like Emergency and Tarzan to know that a wounded animal was ten times as dangerous. Besides what if it was someone other than Williamson. An Inuit or another Mountie. Ray could just see the headlines now.
He dropped his train of thought as the bushes rustled again ten feet further to the right. He swung the rifle quickly to bear. "Alright, come on out. I've got a rifle and a biscuit and I know how to use them both!"
"I can't believe you're not going to help him," Ellen chastised, swatting Ray's father on the arm.
Ray jerked around at the sound of the voice. He nearly melted with relief when he saw the spirit of his father but then the anger seeped back in. "Damn it, pop! Was that you making all that noise?"
"That's right, blame it all on me," the Italian countered back.
Ellen pinched him. "Tell him."
"Ow, knock it off." He swatted her away. "He can take care of it himself."
"What?" Ray questioned worriedly. "What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing," his father snapped.
Ray's eyebrows rose at his father's odd behavior. "I didn't think mosquitoes could attack ghosts."
"Yeah, well the dead ones can." He cast Ellen an ugly glance then returned his attention to his son. "Look..." he began.
"Ray!" a voice called out from the woods behind him. It was Fraser.
"Over here," Ray answered.
Fraser came through the trees and spotted Ray and then his father. "Dad?"
Ray sighed in disgust. "Don't tell me, your eyesight's going? Oh God, not again."
Fraser scowled in his direction, then looked back at his father. "What's going on?"
"Just some bushes rattling, that's all. Probably an animal," Ray explained. He didn't want to say it was his father, the ghost, making all the racket.
"Williamson's still alive son. He's around here somewhere," Fraser Sr. said.
"They left my daughter alone," Ellen whispered, fear twisting itself like a live animal around her features. She faded quickly away.
Fraser looked back the way he had come. "Margaret." He turned as quickly as he could on his injured leg. "Come on, Ray! Williamson's still alive and he's after Margaret!"
Ray almost dropped his rifle in shock. "What?! How do you know that?! Wait a minute! Wait for me!" He took off after Fraser.
* * *
Margaret sat by the fire. The water was just coming to a boil for the tea. God, how she needed one. Her nerves were shot. She didn't want to be alone but she saw how concerned Benton was for his friend. She told him to go after him. She had offered to go but he wouldn't allow it. He gave her a pistol and told her to use it if she needed help.
The pistol sat in her lap as she fixed her tea and wrapped her cold hands around the hot cup, blowing gently and letting the steam rise around her face. The sudden voice beside her startled her and the pistol and the cup fell to the ground as she rose in terror. The tea hit the fire and started it hissing. She knew that voice.
"Michael...." she whispered.
"You're alive," he said hesitatingly. He reached out to touch her but she backed away. "I thought..."
"You thought what?" Margaret cried. "You bastard. You pushed me over the cliff."
"No, no, no," he insisted, frantically shaking his head. "It was an accident. I didn't mean it." He moved towards her again. "Thank God you're all right."
She stepped around the fire putting it between them. "I'm not all right, Michael. What you did was wrong. What you've done is wrong."
"I don't understand, Maggie."
She was shocked at his ignorance. "You were willing to kill innocent people just to save your own skin and you think I can forgive you for that?"
"I was just trying to set things right again. Things got out of balance. That can't happen. You understand, don't you? I can't go to jail. You wouldn't want that, would you Maggie? You love me."
"No, Michael. Not anymore. I haven't loved you for a long time. Just accept that and go away."
"You have to come with me," he said. He wasn't asking.
Margaret stepped closer to the woods. "No."
Michael was about to step around the fire when a familiar voice spoke to him.
"Don't touch my daughter." It was a quiet threat. Ellen's ghostly form emerged from the night.
Michael's breath stopped short as he looked around but didn't see anyone. "Who's that?"
Michael's head snapped back around to look at Margaret. "Your mother? She's dead!"
A terrified Margaret just stood there for a moment staring at the person she loved the most and the one she now hated the most square off. Then she ran. A blinding run with branches grabbing her and slashing her exposed skin. She didn't care. She had to get away from him. She had to find Fraser. A crashing sound behind her told her that Michael was following.
* * *
Ray burst into the clearing by the fire. It was empty. He saw the pistol and the spilled tea. Fraser came limping after, sweat beading his face even in the coolness of the night. His features were twisted with pain.
"She's not here," Ray told him.
Fraser fell swiftly to the ground to the examine the prints scattered around. He wished he could say it was due to eagerness but it was as much exhaustion and pain that forced him down as his zeal to read the tracks.
"Williamson's been here. This is his boot print."
"Damn it, we're too late!" Ray cursed, looking around the campfire. He saw some more prints heading off into the woods. "We got some more over here, Fraser. Looks like Margaret and her hubby. They go off this way." He moved to help his friend stand. He didn't like the way Fraser was laboring. "Why don't you stay here, I'll track them." He picked up a lit branch for a torch.
Fraser raised skeptical eyebrows. Ray shrugged. "I think I got the hang of it now. Stay here. We'll be back."
Ray disappeared into the gloom. Fraser stood there for a minute, then grabbed the flashlight from Ray's pack and limped off after his friend. He shined the beam of light at the damp ground illuminating the facts. Fact one: Margaret and Williamson were heading back towards the cliff; Fact two: Ray was heading in the wrong direction.
"Ray!" Fraser received no answer. He took a deep breath and limped faster in the direction of the cliff. He was now Margaret's only chance.
* * *
Margaret was running headlong through the woods, not knowing she was passing through all too familiar territory. She fell to her knees in the mud. Exhausted, she grabbed the branches at her sides and roughly pulled herself up. Sheer terror pushed her forward. Suddenly, the woods cleared and she skidded to a stop just a couple of feet from the edge of the cliff.
"Shit," she cursed honestly. Then a hand roughly grabbed her arm and spun her around. She let loose a cry of pain and fear.
"Damn it, Margaret! I just want to talk some sense into you!" Michael's sweat streaked face was drawn up in anger, shining in the dim moonlight.
"You stopped wanting to talk when you shoved me off the cliff, Michael! And then you tried to throw everyone else off too! Jesus, how did you expect me to act? There's no love between us anymore. Just let me go."
"No one leaves me, Margaret! Not ever! You love me. I know you do. I've treated you like a queen all these years and this is how you repay me?" Michael shouted roughly, shaking her, his voice threatening to crack under the strain.
Margaret couldn't stop the tremors in her limbs. She couldn't stop herself from telling him the truth, no matter the consequences. "Your price was too high. Don't you see, I can't be a part of your life if you continue to deal drugs. I've got higher morals than that."
Michael's stinging hand slapped her across the right cheek. Her head snapped to the left as the stars in the night sky suddenly multiplied tenfold. Her knees gave out but Michael's grip on her arm hadn't loosened and held her upright. She stepped back to regain her footing. She could feel his strength forcing her backwards. Her eyes refocused to see the hatred in his. Then Margaret heard her mother's furious voice.
"Leave her alone, you bastard! I told you not to touch her!"
Michael spun around and saw the figure of a woman he recognized as the deceased mother of Margaret. "You...you're dead.." Michael stepped back, pushing Margaret so that her heels dangled over the edge. She grabbed his shoulder and he shoved her away. She fell.
"No!" screamed Ellen moving swiftly towards Michael. In his terror to avoid the spectre he too stepped off the edge. As he went over he reached out and grabbed the only thing within reach, Margaret's waist. She had miraculously clung to the vegetation on the cliff's edge but that grip was slipping with the sudden added weight. She couldn't help as a scream erupted from her.
Suddenly a hand reached down and grabbed hers. She looked up into the face of Fraser.
"At your service," he hissed through grated teeth. The strain was incredible. He knew he wasn't going to be able to hold on for long. The ground was too soft and wet.
"Pull us up!" Michael yelled.
"That's not an option," Fraser stated honestly. "Climb up over Margaret before we all fall. I can't hold onto all of us."
Michael moved his hand to crawl up over his wife but her pants were covered in mud. He slid past her knees. Margaret screamed as the motion swung their bodies from side to side. Fraser's grasp slipped.
Michael reached up again but he couldn't get a good grip. Margaret pulled a hand away from Fraser.
"What are you doing?" Fraser shouted anxiously as his body eased further over the edge of the abyss.
"Michael, give me your hand." Margaret extended her hand down to him. He reached up and grabbed it.
"I can't hold you!" Fraser cried. He was slipping faster. They were all going over the cliff.
"Fraser!" a voice screamed. Ray came running from the forest and flung himself on Fraser just as he was sliding the last few feet towards disaster. "Don't you even think about going over!"
"I hadn't really meant to, Ray," Fraser said as he hung over the edge. The blood was rushing quickly to his head. It didn't feel good.
Margaret still had Michael but she couldn't hold him. "Michael, do something! Climb up!"
"I can't! Hold me!"
"Michael!" Margaret howled as his hand slipped from hers and his terrible weight was suddenly gone. As his figure disappeared into the mists, his terrified scream reverberated through the canyon walls . It filled her soul. "NO!"
Then she fell another foot. "Fraser!"
"Ray!" Fraser shouted.
"What!" Ray yelled. "I can't hold onto all of you! Somebody do something!"
Ray's father materialized beside him. "Why am I not surprised by this predicament." Ray just glared at him.
"I'm open to suggestions, Ray." Fraser urged.
"Lift! Climb! Levitate! Anything!" Ray suggested heatedly. They slipped another few inches.
"Levitating sounds good," Fraser's father remarked. He was floating just to the left of his son. "But only someone like me can do that."
"You're not helping," Fraser said.
"What do you want me do?" Margaret and Fraser Sr. said simultaneously. Margaret's hand slipped further out of Fraser's grasp. She grabbed at him with her other hand.
Margaret's face lifted to look up into Fraser's. Their eyes locked. "I'm not afraid," she whispered. She could see her mother leaning over and looking down on them. She smiled up at her. Fraser smiled back. The spirit of his father had vanished.
"Climb up, Margaret. You can do it." He shoved her hand up as far as he could. She latched onto his shirt, her feet desperately trying to gain support on the rocky cliff wall. Inch by inch she made it up. It was agony for Fraser. His back and leg were screaming with pain. Finally she gained the top but it cost them. Ray and Fraser had slipped further. Now Fraser was almost completely over the edge and with no way to climb up. There was no energy left within him. Ray clung to his feet determinedly. Margaret grabbed hold of Ray digging her own feet into the mud.
"Pull," she yelled. "We have to get him up."
"I'm trying!" Ray screamed back.
Fraser's quiet voice drifted up. "Let go, Ray."
"Are you insane? I let go and you fall off the cliff! That's not a plan, Fraser! That's suicide!"
"We'll all go over if you don't!"
"No we won't," Ray insisted venomously. "Somebody will save us."
"Who Ray? Nobody's coming." Fraser saw his father materialize beside him again. He stood quiet and tall.
"You are so pessimistic, today. I told you there are Mounties all over these woods, we just need to give them time to find us. Help! Anybody!"
Fraser looked at his father. "See what you did?" Fraser Sr. merely shrugged.
They all slipped another two inches.
"You're not going to fall," Ray strained through his clenched jaw. His body digging deeper into the soft slick ground. "Not today."
Suddenly the woods erupted with people and Diefenbaker led the way, barking wildly.
"Over here," Margaret screamed.
"Oh, thank God," Ray almost sobbed. "The calvary's here." Bodies and hands reached out and latched onto them and with three great heaves lifted Ray and Fraser over the lip of the cliff. They lay there exhausted not daring to move. Diefenbaker was on top of Fraser, licking his face anxiously.
"Thank you," Fraser whispered quietly. "I'm alright, Diefenbaker." He didn't trust his voice at the moment.
Ray opened his eyes and saw his father staring at him anxiously.
"So you had to be a hero," Vecchio Sr. said.
Ray shrugged and them grinned foolishly as the adrenalin continued to pump. "Felt good."
"You're an lunatic," his father retorted.
"Takes one to know one, pop." Ray raised himself up on his arm.
An elderly Inuit approached them. "We made it just in time, it appears. If it wasn't for this wolf and that trio of elderly hikers we might not have found you."
"Hikers?" Ray queried. "Was there a Mountie with them?"
The old man scratched his chin, then nodded. "Come to think of it, yeah, one of them could have been a mountie."
Ray reached over and slapped Fraser on the shoulder. "See, I told you." He indicated the natives surrounding them. "The old man came through for us."
Fraser could see his father in the oblivious crowd. "Yes, I guess he did."
"Three, huh," Ray asked. "He must have found some more escaped patients from the loony bin. You've got a lot of weird people wandering around up here, Fraser."
Margaret began laughing. Her mother was standing with her arm around empty air but she was smiling and looking up at something invisible beside her. Ellen looked over and tearfully waved at her daughter, relief evident in her expression. "Maybe they're not as insane as you think," Margaret said as her mother nodded vigorously.
Two men reached down and lifted Fraser gently to his feet and helped him down the mountain and back to their camp. Ray and Margaret fell into step beside them.
"I guess we'll be going back to the States now, huh Ray," Fraser said.
Ray looked at him incredulously. "I don't think so. We have a cabin to finish and I'll be damned if I have to come back here again. So we complete it this time or we forget about it forever. You got me?"
Fraser grinned. "I got you."
"Damn right," the detective answered.